IT AT AMAZON:
- Working with The Coens
- The Making of No Country for Old
- Diary of a Country Sheriff
You’ve noticed that it’s No Country For Old Men week. And
while there’s more than a weeks’ worth of articles to write about this movie,
I’ve already said my basic piece in the theatrical review. So this, perhaps the
most spoiler-filled piece we’ll run, is a quick novel to film
comparison dressed up as a DVD review. If you want to know more about the
technical details, look to Jeremy’s review or the others coming tomorrow and
Friday. The disc looks and sounds great, and has the barren feature set common
to Coen Brothers releases. As if you need more than this movie to sate any
If you didn’t actually read the last paragraph, I’m serious. This is spoiler city.
In my estimation the film improves upon the book, even
though it loses a lot of good material, most of which pertains to Sheriff Ed
Tom Bell. But while the film cuts out swaths of Bell’s memories, it also
intensifies his character. In doing so Bell becomes a strangely flawed icon,
and an interesting counterpoint to the film’s more concentrated version of the
This isn’t an entirely idle pursuit. No Country For Old
Men is a movie in which the main characters almost completely fail to directly
interact with one another. Cormac McCarthy wrote a face to face meeting between
Llewelyn Moss and Anton Chigurh, but the Coen Brothers stripped it, further
isolating the two. That makes the movie an odd travelogue of three people on
the road to hell, and they have to be considered individually as well as within
the context of each others’ actions.
What I’m not going to do, for the most part, is specifically
highlight what material was McCarthy and what was Coen. Some things you’d
assume were invented for the film include Moss’ conversation with the border
guard and his second shopping trip after leaving Mexico, but they’re
transferred almost verbatim. The Coens did give Bell a few good new bits like “I’m
hiding behind you” and “looking for a man who has recently drunk milk”.
But two things stand out as small noteworthy Coen
inventions. One is the dog that chases Moss into the river, a masterful
cinematic moment. The other is a simple change – the ‘last man’ wears old boots
with big holes in the soles. McCarthy specifies his ‘good crocodile boots’ but
the Coen brothers, simply by changing one specific detail, recast his role
entirely. He’s a hired gun and, probably, a guy not much different from Moss.
As if the warning he represents wasn’t explicit enough, now Moss knows that a
guy more or less like him has already fallen victim because of the money. One
detail changes, and we get a significant dash of extra story.
Llewelyn Moss is the most consistent between page and
screen. The novel’s Moss is slightly more methodical, especially when looking
at the desert massacre. He deduces the existence of the last man and he’s more
cunning when evading the Mexicans before jumping in the river. (Also, in the
book, Moss tucks his boots into his belt and puts them back on before making
the last trek across the plain. In the movie his lack of boots is one of a very
few things that bugs me. Anyone who’s tried to walk more than fifty feet
barefoot in West Texas knows the ground is littered with burrs that have
astoundingly sharp spikes that can be a half-inch long.) We also see him having
some more fun with the money in the novel; he shops for exotic boots and eats a
steak in Mexico. Bottom line: he’s not as rushed, but McCarthy doesn’t pace his
work as a chase in the same way the Coens do. On film, however, he’s still the
everyman, still the normal dumb guy we want to see get away. Small details are
omitted and changed, but Moss gets the cleanest move from page to screen.
Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is similarly intact. Mostly. We’ve seen
Tommy Lee Jones play this character several times over, and that’s part of what
makes him so well suited for it. In terms of sheer page count, Bell loses the
most in translation. McCarthy liberally splashed the novel with Bell’s memoirs,
and without his monologues we know significantly less about the man. (If you’re
not of a mind to buy the book, just read all the italicized pages in the store;
that’ll give you almost the full picture.) But Jones carries as much in a
glance or a wrinkle as most actors can in a page of dialogue. And while a lot
of details and reminisces are gone, the feeling is still there. Sure, on the
page he’s slightly less nice, slightly more indecisive, significantly more
weak. He’s more human. And the Coen Brothers are definitely going for iconic on
screen, which is obvious as soon as you start to look at Anton Chigurh. Bell
may be an icon cast in the Peckinpah mold rather than the Ford, but as an
example of a rational man’s response to the world, he’s no less significant for
Anton Chigurh is, oddly enough, the character with the
smallest volume of cut material but the most different from page to screen.
From a distance, the screen Chigurh seems to be as exact a copy of his prose
analog as possible. But closer inspection reveals something rather different. Bardem’s
character is quieter, more of an observer. He doesn’t waste small comments. He
doesn’t tell the first stun gun victim that he didn’t want to get blood on the
car, and he doesn’t call the gas station owner a cracker. He doesn’t indulge Wells at all when offered what he admits, in the book, is “a good payday,” nor does he admit being wounded. A small speech about
objects being instruments that lead to an accounting is reduced to a far more
enigmatic “then it’ll be just a coin…which it is.” On the page, he finishes
with a question, “is it?” and that
changes the whole thing. McCathy’s version talks about his own realizations and
god. McCarthy’s Chigurh, to cut to the chase, is human. The Coens’ might not
be. He’s mythic, and infinitely more iconic.
One scene points out the change well. On screen, there’s
a poetry to Chigurh’s examination of Moss’ trailer. In the book he just drinks
the milk, sits on the couch and looks ‘at himself in the dead grey screen’ of
the television. Bardem adds glances and a tentative way sitting on the couch,
like he’s seeing what it’s like to live Moss’ life, intuiting who he is. He
zones out looking into the television, like he might find some life in there,
maybe a human one, something he doesn’t experience.
Granted, here’s also a change that doesn’t quite reconcile
with my take. In the novel one of the two boys at the scene of Chigurh’s car
accident take the pistol the assassin used to kill Carla Jean. They sell it,
and it turns up in a crime. That’s a good pointer towards a legacy of violence,
but it’s also a messy set of details.
Anyway, all that is really just the lead up to talking
about two segments the Coen Brothers left out and one they added.
The first ‘deleted scene’ is in the Eagle Pass motel,
where Moss and Chigurh actually meet and have some chance to measure each
other. On the page the killer is a figure ‘beyond Moss’ experience,’ a
realization (or admission) given to Bell in the film. But more important is the
fact that this is a point where Moss might have killed his pursuer. Lot of
meaning there. It’s a redemption in the novel; Moss doesn’t shoot when he might
have, giving himself at least a metaphorical new license on life. The Coens don’t
indulge that at all. And while the reasons may be only logistical the end result
is the same – Moss is a dead man as soon as he ignores the last man and walks
off with the bag of cash.
The second is a more significant cut, volume-wise, but I’m
not sure that it’s anything more than practical in the final tally. McCarthy
scripted a long scene where Moss picks up a hitchhiker, in part because he’s
too tired to drive, but also we suspect because he needed some basic human
reassurance. His passenger is a teenage girl, and she’s killed in the last
motel shootout instead of the swimming pool woman that appears in the film. The
extended dialogue between the two (the longest passages of conversation in the
novel) are a chance for Moss to pass on a little wisdom, but more often they
feel like McCarthy is stalling as he builds up to Moss’ meaningless death. He
sneaks in a short passage where the Mexicans obliquely discover his location,
which leads to a shootout that happens between paragraphs, just as it happens
between edits in the film.
The hitchhiker’s presence makes the whole situation more
messy. In the long run, from the novel’s perspective, there’s value in that.
Carla Jean has to assume her husband might have cheated on her, and Bell’s
involvement with the situation mirrors some of the other wild crime and ‘human behavior’ stories he’s
mused about over the course of the book. But without those stories there’s
little balance for Carla Jean’s assumptions or for the digression as a whole.
Finally, there’s that significant added detail. Bell’s
final look through the motel room where Moss died is uneventful in the novel.
Chigurh is very clearly (to the reader) in his car in the lot when Bell
approaches, and to us it’s equally clear that Bell both wants to face him and
fears doing so. But the moment passes without incident. Bell’s final actions
and decisions are no different, but our understanding of them might be.
The film casts that motel scene in a far different light.
Bell’s vision of Chigurh is one of the most enigmatic, even dreamlike scenes in
the Coen Brothers’ entire catalog, and it leads to a wealth of interpretations.
It communicates Bell’s fear and uncertainty with no little clarity. But because the
entire film is so matter-of-fact we have to question whether or not Chigurh was
actually in the room, and if so what that means. On film he’s as much an idea
as a man, the sort of figure that can distill an entire swath of humanity into a
single silhouette. He is the dismal tide, and this small addition to the telling caps the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece with a suggestive elegance. Making us feel, like Bell, that we can see the end coming and will never escape it.
9.7 out of 10